Thoughts on Hearthstone (Beta)

Jordan Barber, Aaron Lynch and Jason Schumacher discuss their experience with the Hearthstone beta. Among the topics covered, thoughts on the closed economy, digital vs. physical design options, and game progression and reward.

First Impressions Jordan The pace of play is something worth mentioning. A single game is an easy time investment, and interesting decisions start popping up very quickly.I think they achieved that very well through the combat design where creatures can be attacked directly, which makes the board state very fluid and prevents board stalls.
Jason I agree: you can play a new game every 10 minutes, which is fantastic. In comparison I’d offer up a League of Legends match, which encourages a similar “just one more game” mentality, except those drag on for 30-40 minutes.In addition, if you start doing poorly, there are consequences for ending early and it just feels bad to play a losing game for another 20 minutes. With Hearthstone, bad games end quickly and you can always concede with consequence.
Pace of Play Jason You mentioned that you arrive at interesting decisions quickly. I do think the decision trees are pretty deep, but I am frustrated by the pace of play. You don’t need that long for a turn; I’d like a mode that is a little faster, because I feel like I’m doing a lot of waiting and clicking on gongs and catapults.
Jordan Funny you mention that, because Nozdormu is a legendary creature that reduces player turn times to 15 seconds.
Aaron A very creative ability. Maybe not that great, but it’s very meta. It reminds me of a Metal Gear Solid game where you shake the controller. Its asking players to take their play outside of the bounds of the game and into the real world.
Jordan I think your point feeds into a larger topic, which is what Hearthstone has been able to do because it operates exclusively within a digital realm.I think they’re just starting to explore this space and I’m excited to see what else they have in store.
Aaron Anything specific?
Jordan Well they can complicate interactions that the computer can handle. The easy comparison is Magic: the Gathering, which tries to balance between complexity and the number of things that can be tracked and managed by humans. Hearthstone can have thorny “comes into play” abilities, whereas for Magic there’s a balancing issue.
Jason Like the Paladin spell Avenging Wrath, which randomly deals 8 damage to enemy minions or heroes. Can you imagine resolving that in a physical game? That’d be dreadful. Hymn to Tourach is painful enough already.
Jordan And now I’m thinking of the priest spell Thoughtsteal, which allows you to put two random cards from your opponent’s deck into your hand. That’s not possible in a physical game.
Jason Well even Arena isn’t possible without a digital game, much less instant-speed card balancing.
Jordan It gives designers a lot of possibilities and a leeway to take risks with cards because it won’t be a permanent mistake if it ends up being game-breaking. They’ll just adjust the stats or abilities.
Progression Aaron One thing that bothers me is the obviousness of the pay-to-play aspect. It’s not subtle. They dole out small rewards and little lumps of gold—it has the flavor of a bad Zynga model.
Jason There will come a time when developers will have to admit that “free to play” really isn’t. They call it fair free to play because there’s a possibility of having the same card pool of someone who spent hundreds of dollars by grinding for a million hours.Yes, technically you can do everything for free. And to developers that’s fair. But it’s really not true, and we should all stop pretending it is.
Aaron So your take on progression and reward, particularly for free players, is poor?
Jason Dreadful. A pack is a hundred gold, which is 30+ winning games or some combination of that and dailies. Given the randomness of packs, that means there’s basically no way to play constructed without spending money.
Aaron It doesn’t feel like there are enough quests to earn gold, or not enough modes. Once you accomplish your daily quest, you’re sorta stuck with a “now what?” situation. Arena is fun but dissatisfying because it’s so temporary.
Jason But this is interesting, because such a poor progression places a burden on the game itself.The game has to be a shit-ton of fun. Because it you’re not going to spend money, they you must enjoy the game itself. The grind has to be fun, which is a bold proposition.
Aaron Good insight. But I think the point remains, for the average player there isn’t enough progression to want to continue playing after a few games. Maybe additional game modes or options would let players think about the game in different ways, spend more time with it.
Jason And one part of that problem is the closed economy.
Jordan Blizzard controls the economy because there is no trading, so everything is on their terms. So people can fiddle with their cards in a vacuum, but they it’s difficult for them to imagine and formulate long-term plans for building decks because the tools are limited.
Jason I mean there’s crafting, which is actually a way of sucking money out of the game.
Play options, variety Aaron Turning back to game play, how do we feel about variety? The number of options and decks you can build, for example. The shared card library is worth talking about.
Jordan The hero feature is an interesting way to restrict card options. So while you’re locked into a specific hero, you have a vast neutral library to also choose from. So there’s some variety, but you can also predict a lot of cards because of the limited pool.If you play against a hunter you can imagine what hero cards they’ll have, and in almost any deck you can expect a Harvest Golem.
Jason There’s another difficulty because a lot of hero cards make neutral cards obsolete.
Jordan Either because they’re closer in theme, or build off other hero cards, or are just strictly better.
Jason And I don’t like strictly better. That doesn’t offer any choice to players.
Jordan And so neutral cards are in a design tension. They need to fit with all heroes, so their theme can’t be well defined.